Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Little Fellow


For years I avoided Joyce Milton's bio of Chaplin, Tramp, because I'd heard it was about his personal life, and not so much about his art. Then I saw it in the library and picked it up. Alas, the reports are true. Most of the book talks about his many problems with women, money and politics. I'm not saying it isn't worth reading, but really, if it weren't for Chaplin's movies, who'd care about the rest?

Chaplin may have been the greatest artist of the 20th century, but he was an odd man. He was cheap (though he could show generosity), thought highly of himself (but also seemed to have an inferiority complex) and had odd fears (of rubber, warm milk and other things).

Milton spends a lot of time on Chaplin's leftist politics. With an alcoholic father and loony mother, essentially raised as a street urchin, he found himself world-famous and beloved by his mid-20s. I supposed that would bend anyone out of shape. I guess it figures he'd fall in with communists. He probably saw it as a way to solve poverty, which he'd seen up close, as well as being a simple answer to big questions that, once adopted, would gain him entry into the smart set.

Chaplin talked people's ears off over politics and other deep issues--he had great breadth, if not depth. (He once lectured Buster Keaton on economics. I'd love to have seen that.) But he never seemed to see the irony of his situation. He supported plans that would essentially have corporate profits confiscated by the state for the good of society, but when asked if he'd give up his own money--he was one of the richest men in Hollywood--his reply was certainly not, communism was for businessmen, not artists. He supported the Soviet Union, but when asked to let his films be shown there for free, he said his work was of great value and he wouldn't give it away to anyone.

Milton can be tough on Charlie, but Chaplin was nasty enough to so many who were close to him that it's hard to feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, who really cares? Those slights of long ago are forgotten, but the Tramp remains.

PS I caught at least four typesetting errors in the book. Highly unusual.

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